Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

CIRES Instrument Developers Lay the Foundations for Our Science

Deep in the basement of CIRES, a team of expert instrument designers, machinists, electronics specialists, and glass blowers in the Integrated Instrument Development Facility (IIDF) design, build, and repair scientific instruments. The group is invisible to many, working below ground without a window to the outside world. But much like the concrete walls that hold up the building above the facility, the group is foundational to the science and researchers that they support.

The instrument design facility has been around for nearly 25 years now, said IIDF director Don David. "We serve a wide range of researchers at CIRES, CU Boulder, NOAA, NIST and beyond."

Machine shop manager Ken Smith has been with the team for 22 years. Among the tools he's worked on is something called a pressure pain device (PPD), which scientists and doctors use to study pain and the effectiveness of pain medications. “We developed the thumb PPD for the psychology department and now it’s used at universities and hospitals all over the world,” Smith said.

Another project the team is working on will impact how we tell time. IIDF is machining parts for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to trap and isolate atoms in an ultra-high vacuum. The team’s work supports important updates NIST is making to the atomic clocks that keep track of official time in the United States.

Building new things isn’t the only area where IIDF excels. Scientists in CIRES and beyond also call upon the team when an instrument isn’t working or a part is damaged and can’t be easily repaired.

Marium Fernanders, a PhD student in the chemistry department, studies how liquid water forms in Mars-like environments. She relies on an instrument called a Raman spectrometer to evaluate how salts in soil interact with the atmosphere and turn into liquid brine. But when she began analyzing samples for her PhD, she realized that something was wrong with the instrument’s laser.

“The instrument is old and the manufacturer doesn’t service it anymore,” Fernanders explained. “Calling the manufacturer wasn’t useful... I just didn’t have the technical knowledge to fix it.”

After reaching a dead end, Fernanders reached out to IIDF.

It was a long shot, but Yehor Novikov, a specialist in scientific glass blowing, electronics design, and instrument repair, was up for the challenge. With little else besides a collection of old manuals to work with, he got to work on the machine. 

Novikov spent a couple weeks combing through the manuals and inspecting the machine. “Then we ran into a slight snag,” Fernanders said. “There’s a proprietary aligning tool that the company has that we didn't have and they wouldn't give me, so Yehor had to take the machine apart to realign the laser.” 

After a couple more weeks of work, Novikov was successful in realigning the laser, and with the help of the CIRES IT team, he was also able to get the computer program associated with the instrument working again.

IIDF’s work is often this kind of iterative process, Smith says, with tweaks being made in collaboration with researchers until the product is finished.

CIRES fellow Rainer Volkamer needed to install a laminar flow air inlet on high-flying research aircraft to study how iodine affects the recovery of the ozone layer, and how it triggers the formation of particles in the upper troposphere. IIDF designed for him an inlet that minimizes collisions of sticky molecules. “Iodic acid is so interesting, because it really wants to condense to form particles that can subsequently grow to seed clouds,” Volkamer said. But what makes iodic acid so interesting, chemically, also makes it challenging to transfer into an airplane-based instrument. 

IIDF’s new laminar flow inlet will be tested this fall in a windtunnel at the US Air Force Academy and then mounted for its first test flights next spring. If all goes well, the part will allow Volkamer and his colleagues to measure trace gases and ambient ions in some of the most remote atmospheric environments on Earth. 

These projects are just a handful of the many they’ve designed and built over the years. The IIDF staff has a combined experience of over 120 years and are willing to give just about anything a try. “Don’t be afraid to ask us,” said IIDF Director David. “We’re here to help you get your science done—it’s our job.”

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


Don David
Brigitta Rongstad
CIRES Communications

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